AMBROSE, PRINCE OF WESSEX; GRETCHEN, FUTURE PRINCESS.

Copyright   ©   2010, by Bruce Corbett.


 

FOREWORD

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Trader of Kiev.)

Some seven years before this story opens, Prince Ambrose and Phillip, his faithful tutor and guardian, are captured in a Viking raid on a village along the Wessex coast. While on the way to Europe as captives, a terrible storm almost sinks the ship. Ambrose, and then Phillip, help to save it.

The battered vessel makes a Frisian port, and there many of the Saxon captives are sold. One stranger, however, is brought aboard. Thus Ambrose and Phillip meet Polonius, at the time just another slave, but once a linguist and scholar of Imperial Byzantium.

The ship reaches the Danish home port, and the three friends are put to work. Ambrose has a generous master, and he falls in love with a slave girl. Phillip is brutally treated, however, and Ambrose and Polonius are forced to flee in order to prevent Phillip from becoming a sacrifice to a savage Viking god.

The three companions flee by small ship north and then east, until they hit the coast of Norway. They land in an isolated Norwegian village, and after being treated hospitably, leave to begin their overland trek to Sweden to find a friend of Ambrose's old master. Once in Sweden, they meet Gunnar of the Rus and happily settle down as apprentice traders.

The arrival of pursuing Danish ships ends these plans abruptly, however. They are forced to flee once again. They join an expedition sailing for Novgorod; a Slavic river town where Rus tribesmen have been invited to settle.

Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius set up a trading post there for Gunnar. Within months, however, they get an opportunity to join another expedition that will take them deep into the heartland of the continent.

After a bitter fight against nomad raiders on the way south, they reach the town of Kiev. There they work with the new Rus rulers to train men and develop a string of fortifications along the river. The steppes are close and nomad raids were frequent.

A fierce attack on the Kiev area by the Pechenegs is fought off only with great difficulty, but soon thereafter the war arrow is sent up and down the river. A punitive attack on Constantinople, the greatest city in the world at the time, is being planned by the audacious Vikings and their Slav subjects.

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Emissary to Byzantium.)

The three friends join the attack on Constantinople, and after considerable adventures return to Kiev in the fall. In the spring, the three friends are sent south again, but this time as official emissaries for Kiev's Viking and Slavic leaders.

With perseverance, luck and skill, the three emissaries manage to reach an agreement with the Emperor of Byzantium. They head north again with the good news, only to discover that Kuralla, now Polonius' wife, has mysteriously disappeared.

A Slav outlaw risks his life to bring them news of her whereabouts from the north, and the three friends quickly take an expedition north to rescue the beautiful Kuralla. After hard travel and battle, they succeed. They no sooner than reach Kiev, however, than they must sail south again. The emperor of Byzantium impatiently awaits their return.

Welcomed by the Emperor in Constantinople, the three find that the magnificent and decadent city is open to them. Ambrose becomes infatuated with a married noblewoman, and only the timely arrival one night of Phillip and Polonius save his life. Soon thereafter, Polonius and Ambrose realize that they have been made pawns in the imperial power struggle, and the friends flee for their very lives.

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Southern Journey.)

Their ship is captured by Cretan pirates, and the friends feel the heavy chains of slavery. After a daring escape, they make it to the port of Alexandria. Byzantine gold and possible treachery forces them to flee eastward, along the coast of Africa. A Byzantine Admiral pursues them doggedly. After many adventures, they reach Tripoli, where a Moslem slaver is blackmailed into delivering them to Byzantine Italy. They are attacked again on the lonely roads of southern Italy, and only their fighting prowess and clever planning allows them to safely reach the independent state of Benevento.

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Journey Home.)

There, Ambrose renews an acquaintanceship with a priest from when he was a child, and they travel northward with a strong military escort. After attempted assassinations and avalanches, attacks by slavers and Vikings, Ambrose and his companions finally arrive home.

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Warrior of the King,)

Once back in England, Ambrose is reunited with his brothers. Their peace is quickly disturbed, however. In 865, a Viking force known as the Great Army landed in England. Under the expert leadership of three brothers named Ubbi, Halfdan, and Ivar (the Boneless), it laid waste to much of England. Suddenly and without warning, the Great Army leaves its base in Northumbria and starts pushing its way south into Mercia.

Far away, in both Wales and Ireland, the Christians are reeling under the attacks of the Norwegian Vikings. While no permanent settlements are established in Wales by the invaders, considerable portions of coastal Ireland become Viking enclaves, including Dublin and, eventually, Wexford.

Desperate for help against the ruthless invaders, King Burgred of Mercia begs Wessex to send men. Ambrose and his companions ride north to help, followed by the king and the remainder of the West Saxon army.

The combined forces of the Angles of Mercia and their West Saxon allies manage to trap the Great Army at Nottingham. The city is besieged, but the Mercian king insists on buying peace with Danegeld. The West Saxon allies return home.

Uncertain of what moves the Great Army will make next, Ambrose rides north again, but this time in the guise of a spy. Leaving his men at two small fortified burhs, Ambrose joins the Great Army. After getting the information necessary to the security of Wessex, he escapes. Hundreds of enraged Danes, however, ride hard on his trail.

Wounded by his pursuers, Ambrose nevertheless makes it to the safety of the Mercian burh. There, he is cared for by Gretchen, the young woman he had fallen in love with the year before. His friends just return to his side when a full division of the Great Army appears and surrounds the burh. The death of Ambrose and his companions appears imminent, but the surprising intervention of a mysterious peddler saves all their lives.

The story you are reading today, Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Gretchen, Future Princess, begins when Ambrose's betrothed heads south for the royal court of Wessex.

First and foremost, this story is a work of fiction. It is a story of adventure and of great love. I have manipulated some historical events for dramatic purposes. The historical background to the story is quite accurate, however, as is the time line. For more information, see Appendix I.

The young Alfred you will meet is eventually going to become the king who saves Britain from total Danish domination; Alfred the Great. Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip are figments of my imagination, but they have lived so long in my mind that they seem very real. I hope, after you have read of their adventures, that you feel the same way.

Words in italics indicate that there is more information in Appendix II at the end of the book. I hope you enjoy the story,

The author,

Bruce Corbett

Return


Cast of Characters.

Aevor: (Fictitious) is the senior wife of Dag, Jarl of Wexford.

Alfred: The younger brother of Ambrose, Ethelred, and Ethelbert. He was an intensely curious man who unexpectedly became king at the death of his brother, in 871. In this story, he is a young man who rides north with Ambrose in an attempt to rescue Gretchen.

 Ambrose: (Fictitious) He was an Anglo-Saxon bastard prince of Wessex. Kidnapped as a boy, he was taken to Denmark and then fled to Norway and Sweden. Chased by the Danes, he joined Gunnar of the Rus, who sent him and his two companions, Phillip and Polonius, to trade on his behalf down the Russian rivers. Ambrose set up trading posts in Novgorod and then Kiev. Finally he travelled to Constantinople as an emissary for the Kiev leaders. From there he eventually returned to England to help his king fight against the Viking raiders.

Subsequently, he joined the Great Army, calling himself Canuteson of the Rus. Ambrose discovers that his true love, Gretchen, is kidnapped and rides north in order to rescue her. Tracing her to Wales, he travels there, to find that she has been taken to Ireland. Tenacious as ever, he follows her there and, after many trials and tribulations, manages to rescue her.

Anna: (Fictitious) She was a young Angle-Saxon slave who, along with Ambrose, was owned by Canute. She introduced Ambrose to the mysteries of love. Ambrose had to leave her great-with-child when he fled in order to save Phillip's life. (See Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev.)

Bardaric: (Fictitious) The chieftain of the settlement in Ireland where the Welsh sailors landed Ambrose and his companions.

Bradach: (Fictitious) Is the son of the Irish chieftain named Dearan. It is he who leads the Irish against the Norse pursuing Ambrose and his friends.

Brys: (Fictitious) The huge leader of the Welsh raiders, he was captured by the Wessex forces when they were heading north to find a trace of Gretchen.

Burgred: King of Mercia and brother-in-law to Alfred the Great, he requests help from Wessex when the Great Army invades his country. Although he and Ethelred trap the Danes at Nottingham, he avoids a fight and agrees to pay Danegeld.

Cedd: (Fictitious) One of Osmond's wagon drivers.

Cunedda: (Fictitious) Ruler of the northern Welsh town of Caernarvon, which Ambrose first visits, and then takes with a ruse. Cunedda's namesake was a leader from northern Britain, whose posterity became kings of various districts of Wales.

Canute: (Fictitious) Ambrose's Danish master right after Ambrose had been kidnapped, he treated Ambrose as an adopted son, and arranged that Ambrose and his party be given refuge in Sweden (The land of the Rus).

Dag: (Fictitious) The Jarl of Wexford, he attempts to kill Ambrose, Polonius, Phillip and Sitric, rather than release Gretchen.

Dearan: (Fictitious) Is the chief of the Irish villagers where Ambrose, Polonius, Phillip, and Sitric stop; near the stronghold of Wexford.

Dewi: (Fictitious) The lieutenant to Lord Cunedda. It was he who led the ten Welshmen who ambushed and captured two of the escaping Norsemen fleeing from the Welsh hill-top.

Eldwin: (Fictitious) He was the leader of the six Irish vassals sent to intercept and kill Ambrose and his friends after they had escaped from Wexford.

Enid: (Fictitious) The first of Gretchen's maids. She was with Gretchen when the Welsh attacked. With a Danish grandmother, she speaks and understands Danish.

Ethelbert: He was crowned king of Wessex upon the death of his brother Ethelbald (860). He re-united the subject kingdoms with Wessex. He died in 865 and was succeeded on the throne by Ethelred.

Ethelred: The fourth son of Ethelwulf, he became king upon the death of his brother Ethelbert in 865. He was the king on the throne when Ambrose and his party originally returned to England from his adventures in Russia and Byzantium. Ethelred, in turn died in 871, and the Witan chose Alfred over Ethelred's young children.

Ethelwulf: King of Wessex, he reigned from 839 to 858. He was the father of Ethelbald, Ethelbert, Ethelred, Alfred, and Ambrose.

Frodi: (Fictitious) Halfdan's warrior in Ireland who wanted to kill Sitric.

Glyn: (Fictitious) Celtic captain of the Welsh fishing vessel that took Ambrose, Polonius, Wynfrith and Phillip to Ireland. Before taking them, he fought Ambrose in a duel.

Gretchen: (Fictitious) Is the daughter of Osmond, Ealdorman of Mercia, and distant relative to the royal family of Wessex. She first met Ambrose at the Wessex court, and then nursed him back to health when he was wounded during his escape from the Danes. She was devoted to him, and he fell in love with the beautiful Gretchen. He was forced to leave her at Storm Haven when he reported to his brother Ethelred, but he received his brother's permission to marry her. Gretchen, on the way to her marriage, is kidnapped first by Welsh brigands, and then by Norse Vikings.

Gunnar: (Fictitious) Head of a great Swedish trading House, he owed a debt to Canute, and paid it by allowing Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius to act as traders for him, on an impending expedition into the heart of Russia.

Lord Gywnn: (Fictitious) One of the nobles who has joined the Welsh forces, trying to track down and destroy the Norse raiders in northern Wales. He enjoys teasing Lord Cunedda about the captive women.

Hakon: (Fictitious) He is a Norse Jarl of Osford, in Ireland. He is the leader of the force in Wales who captures Gretchen and her maidservants.

Halfdan: He was elder brother of Ubbi and Ivar the Boneless. He was one of the three leaders of the Great Army in England. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok.

Harold the Frisian: See Sitric Ivarsson.

Hroarr: (Fictitious) He was a sub-commander under Olvaerr at Wexford. He and Sigurd led the attack against the retreating Irish tribesmen.

Ivar the Boneless: The brother of Halfdan and Ubbi and joint leader of the Great Army. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok. Before this story started, his son Sitric met Ambrose in Wessex.

Kuralla: (Fictitious) She was a Slav chieftain's daughter whose village defied Bothi, a Rus chieftain. Her father was tortured and killed, and she was about to be given to the warriors when Ambrose purchased her to save her life. Polonius married her before they returned with Ambrose to England.

Lord Llewellyn: (Fictitious) Master of the northern Welsh coastal area. He joins the coalition forces against the Norse.

Meghan: (Fictitious) She is an Irish slave woman who treats the noble captives with consideration. It was she whom Gretchen speaks to after the Irish attack on Wexford.

Olvaerr: (Fictitious) He was, under Dag, the commander of the Wexford forces.

Osmond: (Fictitious) He was Ealdorman of Storm Haven in the kingdom of Mercia. Before this story opened, he visited the Wessex Court in an attempt to raise money in order to pay Danegeld to the Great Army. He reluctantly agreed to Ambrose leaving fifty Wessex thanes at Storm Haven while Ambrose and his two comrades attempt to infiltrate the Great Army. Osmond refused to allow his own thanes to ride against the pursuing Danish war party. Here Ambrose met the beautiful Gretchen.

Osmond agrees to the marriage of his daughter to the young prince, and heads south to the Wessex court. The entire column is captured by Welshmen, however, and Gretchen and her maids are taken to be held for ransom.

Penelope: (Fictitious) The second of Gretchen's maids. She is with Gretchen when the Welsh attack. She is the daughter of a captive Welsh mother, and thus speaks the Celtic language.

Phillip: (Fictitious) A giant of a man, he is Weapons-master to the royal court of Wessex, until he and Ambrose are kidnapped. He follows, and protects, Ambrose, from Denmark to Constantinople and back.

Polonius: (Fictitious) He was born to noble Byzantine parents, and given an excellent education. When his family had financial reverses, he and his sisters were sold into slavery. He was taken to Lombardy, France, and, eventually, Frisia. There, he chanced to meet Ambrose and Phillip. Together they embarked on a series of adventures that took him to Norway, Sweden, Novgorod, Kiev, and eventually Constantinople itself. An expert linguist and knife-thrower, he returned to England with Ambrose, and, as Nicholas, helped him spy on the Danish Great Army.

In this story, he continues to be Ambrose's steadfast companion. He rides to Wales, participates in the attack on Caernarvon, and then travels to Ireland with Ambrose.

Rekkr: (Fictitious) An officer of Halfdan who was in Ireland and wanted to kill Ambrose and his friends.

Ragnar Lodbrok: A powerful Danish chieftain who invaded England and France. Legend had it that he was killed in Northumbria by being thrown in a pit of snakes. His three sons were Halfdan, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubbi.

Rodor: (Fictitious) One of Osmond's wagon drivers.

Sigurd: (Fictitious) He is a sub-commander under Olvaerr at Wexford, who leads the attack on the fleeing Irish tribesmen.

Sitric Ivarsson: The son of Ivar the Boneless, the feared leader of the Great Army and king of Dublin. Later, Phillip rescued him, and he, in turn, called off a Danish assault on Storm Haven. In this story, Ambrose meets him in Dublin, where Sitric is visiting his father. Subsequently he helps Ambrose by loaning him two of his long-ships. He became king of Dublin after his father and his uncle, Halfdan, both died. He himself died in 896.

 Snorri: (Fictitious) A Norseman, he is one of Hakon's lieutenants.

Ubbi: He was a younger brother of Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok.

Uffi: (Fictitious) a Norseman, he is the second lieutenant of Hakon.

Wynfrith: (Fictitious) A thane of Wessex, his lands are on the western extremity of Wessex, in territory that two generations before had belonged to the independent kingdom of Cornwall. Due to his knowledge of both the Irish and Welsh Celtic dialects, he acts as translator to Ambrose on the expedition to Wales and Dublin


 

Table of Contents

Foreword

Cast of Characters

Chapter 1: Gretchen's Party Is Caught.

Chapter 2: Cunedda's Party Is Captured by Norsemen.

Chapter 3 Ambrose Rides to the Rescue.

Chapter 4 Norse Retreat.

Chapter 5 The Norse March to the Coast.

Chapter 6   The Trap Is Sprung."

Chapter 7   Ambrose Goes to Cunedda.

Chapter 8   The Town of Caernarvon Is Taken.

Chapter 9   Caernarvon Has Fallen.

Chapter 10  Ambrose & Friends Find a Ship to Ireland, but Have to Prove Themselves to the Welsh Sailors First.

Chapter 11  Gretchen Goes South to Wexford and Ambrose Reaches Ireland.

Chapter 12  The Irish Seize the Travellers.

Chapter 13  Gretchen Arrives at Wexford.

Chapter 14  Ambrose And His Friends Talk to The Irish Before Going to Wexford.

Chapter 15  The Friends Escape from Wexford.

Chapter 16  Ambrose and His Party Escape and the Norse Organize.

Chapter 17  Norse Vengeance.

Chapter 18   The Flight Continues.

Chapter 19   Gretchen Learns About The Visitors.

Chapter 20   The Norse Pursuers Catch Up to the Fleeing Irish.

Chapter 21   Gretchen and Her Companions Leave for Norway.

Chapter 22   Ambrose Rents Ships From Sitric.

Chapter 23   Return to Caernarvon.

Chapter 24   The Ships Arrive at Caernarvon.

Chapter 25   Ambrose & Alfred Attack a Norse Ship.

Appendix I   History of Alfred's era.

Appendix II   Glossary of terms

Appendix III  About the Author. Upcoming books.

Appendix IV  Map of Alfred's England


 

CHAPTER 1

Gretchen's Party Is Caught.

Gretchen looked back at her father's timber and stone fortified burh of Storm Haven. She blinked back the tears and then resolutely turned her gaze south. She was not sure that she would ever see these beloved lands again. She had been born at Storm Haven and lived all of her eighteen years there, except for the few occasions when she had accompanied Osmond, her father, to the Mercian royal court. Her father had held the shire, and Storm Haven, their main burh, as had his father before him, as loyal ealdormen of Mercia.

She suddenly remembered the one memorable visit she had made outside of the kingdom. A ghost of a smile flitted across her face. The God-cursed pagan Danes had swept into eastern Mercia the summer before, and Gretchen's father had begged to be allowed to pay Danegeld in order to buy the safety of his home and shire.

The Danes had laughingly agreed, and even gave him some weeks to raise the necessary gold and silver. Her father's own master, King Burgred of Mercia, had just lost the fortress town of Nottingham to the brazen invaders, and was himself forced into hiding. The king was, therefore, not in a position to help the master of Storm Haven. Gretchen and her father had rushed south to the court of their distant cousin, the king of Wessex.

Gretchen would have liked to erase the humiliating memory of her father begging for the gold, but on that visit she had met a very special man, a royal atheling by the unusual name of Ambrose. Her heart pounded in her chest when she thought of the handsome man. The man's mother had been a slave in whose body ran the blood of ancient British royalty. His father had been the king of Wessex.

The bastard prince had intrigued her. When Ambrose later arrived at Storm Haven, after spying on the Viking Great Army, he had been more dead than alive. In fleeing with the Great Army's secrets, he had taken an arrow meant for his companion.

Ambrose had been put in her private bower, and Gretchen had patiently nursed him back to health after both her father's own healer and the black-garbed men of God had given up hope. In the time it took to nurse the prince back to health, Gretchen realized that she had fallen madly in love with the young man.

Now she was on the way to the royal Wessex court again, but this time as Ambrose's betrothed! Ethelred, the powerful king of  all the Angle, Saxon and Jute lands south of the Thames, and grandson of the island's last Bretwalda, had agreed to their marriage! Ambrose, though still recovering from his grievous wound, had been forced to ride ahead. She knew that he was impatiently waiting for her at his brother's royal seat of Winchester.

With the conflicting emotions warring in her head, Gretchen turned one last time to look at the sturdy burh that had been home for all her life. She was sure that she could see the aged Brigitte, her faithful nanny since the day she was born, waving from the lookout tower.

She turned to her faithful servant. "Penelope! No snuffling . . . and stop staring backwards. You will fall off your horse!"

"But, Mistress! I wasn't  . . . is that a tear I see in your own eye?"

Gretchen quickly wiped the tear away. "Of course not! Don't be daft, girl. I just got a piece of grit in my eye."

Suddenly Gretchen's eyes misted over again. "Penelope - I don't know if I should be happy or sad. I am going to marry the man of my dreams - but I am leaving behind everything that I know!"

Penelope smiled through her own tears. "Be happy, Mistress. You will make a new home at your Ambrose's side."

"And father says you can stay with me in Wessex if you want!"

"If there are no cursed Northmen in Wessex, I shall be happy to do just that!"

***

The little caravan followed the old Roman road west and north. Their first destination was Leicester, whence they would cut south, taking the road to Bath, and then eventually east, to Winchester and the royal court.

Like some incredible living creature, the road rose and fell, rose and fell, dipping into dales and surmounting windswept hilltops. As they moved slowly along, the little caravan found Angle villages in the valley bottoms, or occasional native British settlements high on the hilltops.

The land was, for the most part, forested, with only scattered fields. What Gretchen did not see, however, were people. Both fields and vills loomed empty.

Gretchen shivered in supernatural dread and spurred her horse until she caught up with her father. "Daddy, it's as if a great evil came this way and swept all the people away. Why are there no people anywhere?"

"Little Blossom, a terrible evil did come this way. The God-cursed Northmen rode this way when they were done with us."

"We saw burned out villages yesterday morning, but none since. Yet there are still no people."

Ealdorman Osmond shrugged. "Those who could, fled to Wessex, or even the Continent. No one knew how far west and the south the heathen devils would push. It will be some time before those who fled return to their homes. Besides, we have enough armed retainers with us to frighten any who remain. Many will simply run and hide when they spot an armed band approaching."

"But daddy, the Great Army is going north. Ambrose found that out when he joined the Great Army and spied on them. Beside, King Burgred has bought peace with the heathens. The entire kingdom is at peace. It should now be safe for all those people to return to their homes."

"Of course, Buttercup. You and I know that, but the refugees who fled south don't. It will be months before word spreads that it is safe to return to Mercia."

"The cowards! Where, at least are the thanes and other fighting men? Surely they stayed, like you."

"You must remember, Buttercup. The Vikings outmanoeuvred our army with their God-cursed ships. In one stroke, their trick rendered the king's defensive lines untenable, and gave the devils the fortified burh of Nottingham. Our own king was forced to hide in the forest, along with any fyrdmen who did not run home to try and protect their own families. There were many good warriors skulking in the forests, until our royal cousin brought his West Saxon army north."

"But you protected your sworn people, daddy."

The big man sighed. "I bankrupted the shire for years to do it but, yes, I think I saved the lives of thousands of our people.  Some of our impetuous young warriors wanted to fight, but you have now seen what would have happened to our lands if I had not agreed to pay the damned Danegeld."

***

It was a rare warm and sunny day, though the season was nigh on to winter. Gretchen had refused to stay in the ponderous wagon and insisted that she and her maid, Penelope, ride their horses. They had been forced to stay close to the safety of their burh for months, and their normally athletic bodies had become soft. Both were thus stiff and sore when the column reached a little stream over which an ancient Roman bridge had collapsed.

Osmond signalled a halt to the straggling column and climbed down from his over-sized mount to inspect the damage. "It looks to me that the local churls have been stealing the stone blocks again. Burgred will have to hang a few of 'em before they'll understand. Damn their stupid hides! We will have to go upriver and see if we can find a place to ford the cursed stream."

Gretchen was pleased to take the opportunity for a break while they waited for the plodding wagons to catch up. She turned to Penelope.

"What do you think, sluggard? Shall we dismount and stretch our legs?"

"We might as well, Mistress. It will take considerable time for Cedd and Rodor to get the wagons here, let alone to get them across a ford, assuming that there actually is one. Why did your father insist on bringing the damn things? They slow us up horribly."

"I didn't hear you complain last night, Penelope, when you snuggled down with me in our mountain of soft hides. But, if the truth were known, I did ask my father that very question."

"Aye? And what did he say?"

"He told me that he wanted us to be completely self-sufficient, at least until we can reach the first of Ethelred's royal estates."

Penelope looked rueful. "Well, I must admit, I did not expect to find all the vills abandoned or burned to the ground."

"My father himself did not expect quite this much devastation. He was counting on at least a little good Angle hospitality to ease our journey south."

Gretchen stared at the cold waters swirling by her feet. "At least we have the wagons to sleep in, and we can thank a merciful God that the weather is holding."

"Aye, we could easily have a snowstorm. It is past time for the first of the season."

Enid, Gretchen's other maid-servant, dismounted and approached her mistress.

"Young Tom tells me that we are taking the long way to Wessex, my Lady. Is that true?"

"How does he know that, Enid?"

"Prince Ambrose told him that Wessex is to the south, yet the moss on the trees indicates that we are going north and west."

Gretchen smiled. "You tell Young Tom that he makes an excellent scout. I am afraid that he is quite right, Enid."

"But why, Lady? Young Tom says that Prince Ambrose told him that there is a Roman road that goes almost directly south from Storm Haven to Wallingford. It is the one that the Wessex men took."

"My father says that we are not taking the road that leads to Wallingford. We are taking the most westerly of the great north-south roads built by the ancient Romans."

"Why, Mistress?"

"My father decided that our caravan would make a great loop to the west, the south, and then east. He said that he had no wish to be caught by Viking raiders and forced to pay Danegeld a second time."

"But Mistress, I heard that Ethelred of Wessex had offered to send a column of a hundred thanes north to escort us to the royal court. With a hundred veteran West Saxon thanes joined to our escort, we would have had very little to fear from anyone."

Gretchen sighed. "I know, Enid. I asked father myself why we did not send for a Saxon escort."

"And what did he say?"

"He said that he had no wish to be responsible for the food and cost of a hundred Saxons. Then he said that he would rather call up some of our fyrdmen who owe him military service."

"Well, Mistress, he seems to have chosen mainly unblooded youths and old men as escort. Forgive me, my lady, but in this country, I would rather have a few more of your Ambrose's battle-forged warriors. Young Tom says it takes experience in battle to make a good warrior, but our men have sat bone idle while others fought and died."

"And our young men are still alive, Enid . . . I do not like the sense of desolation hereabouts, either. Father assures me however, that the thirty mounted warriors he called up are more than adequate to escort us to Wessex."

"Do you agree, Mistress?"

"We are but women, Enid. It is not for us to question. Besides, when I commented, my father was quick to point out that it was Ambrose who told us that the Heathens are going north and had already called in all of their foraging parties."

Enid spoke. "Then why did we not just go directly south?"

"I asked that question, too."

"And what did he say, Mistress?"

Gretchen sighed again. "He said that I should just leave the strategy to the men folk. He said that I shouldn't worry my pretty little head about men's affairs. He told me he didn't want wrinkle lines on my face when I marry Ambrose!"

Penelope gasped. "And what did you say to that?"

"You know that I can never win an argument with him. My pig-headed father simply can not comprehend that his daughter is capable of independent thought. So I just nodded dutifully and said. 'Yes, father.'"

The first inkling of danger struck Gretchen when a lanky militiaman of her father's fyrd gasped and tried desperately to reach his back with his hand. He had been standing near the three women, and flirting with Enid.

Gretchen thought for a moment that he was just teasing them with the gargling sounds he was making. He soon pitched forward, however, and Gretchen saw to her horror that the man had a feathered shaft protruding from between his shoulder blades!

Seconds later the alarm horn was blown, but it was already too late. From the woods on the other side of the stream emerged a line of archers with arrows nocked and bows drawn. On the other three sides appeared lean raiders who stepped from the woods and silently formed into a crescent formation. The circle was complete!

The attackers on Gretchen's side of the stream all carried shield and spear or sword; while those on the other side stood with arrows ready.

At a nod from a dark scarred man, a gruff giant in leather spoke in abominable Anglish.

"Weapon down, you live. Fight, you killed!"

Osmond's Guard captain raised his sword menacingly. "This is the party of Ealdorman Osmond of Mercia, sworn man of King Burgred of Mercia. We are travelling under the personal protection of Ethelred, king of Wessex! How dare you stop us?!"

There was another brief demonstration of the archers' prowess, and Osmond stared at the dead body of his Guards captain.

Osmond kept his own hands far away from this sword scabbard. "Weapons down! We will pay their damned toll and be on our way."

The giant grinned. "Smart man. We want gold, not to kill."

As the weapons hit the ground, the lean and ragged bandits closed on their victims. Gretchen watched apprehensively as the warriors searched each of her father's men. The attackers wore leather armour, and a few had attached metal rings to it. From their odour, it was clear that they did not understand the value of cleanliness, or they had been on the road for a long time.

Gretchen had heard stories of the wild men who had long ago moved west rather than submit to the Angle and Saxon invaders. The Celts had sullenly abandoned their eastern lands to the Continental tribesmen who flooded the coastal lands. Before long however, the land-hungry Angles and Saxons and Jutes followed and eventually pressed the Celts into the forbidding western mountains.

Just as Osmond was being relieved of his purse, Cedd and Rodor made their appearance. By the time the two men saw the bandits, it was too late. Several fleet warriors surrounded the slow wagons.

Gretchen heard her father groan. Their real treasure lay in the wagons, not on his person.

 Even without hearing their lilting speech, Gretchen guessed immediately that these were the wild Welshmen she had heard about. With the exception of the group's leader and a few of his companions, their weapons were crude, yet Gretchen had been told that they were a formidable race, living in a wild land.

As she stared at the enemy warriors, she remembered the tales told around her father's evening fire. She knew they had fought valiantly, but futilely, until their backs were to the Irish Sea. They had resisted effectively enough, however, that Offa, the old king of Mercia, had been forced to construct the massive earthworks that she still knew as Offa's Dyke. Gretchen had been told that the dyke had been an attempt to control the incursions of the Welsh into their own former eastern lands.

The raiders were thorough, although they were surprisingly gentle in their treatment of the women. No one was mistreated who didn't resist.

The Welshmen whooped in delight when they found Gretchen's dowry in Cedd's wagon. Osmond groaned aloud when the beautiful clothes and golden jewellery were removed from the wagon and tossed about with abandon.

At last, after his men were through searching the wagons and the captives, the chief of the Welsh band ordered Osmond brought to him. Standing between two grinning Welsh warriors, Osmond stood as proudly as he could. His corpulence contrasted strongly with the lean warriors who held him.

The leader, the dark man with deep scars on his tanned face, slowly looked the Ealdorman up and down. He seemed to grimace with distaste at the prisoner. At last he spoke, surprisingly, in the Saxon tongue.

"Your kind appear to grow fat on our old lands! Well, I have good news for you, fat man! You and your men will be free to go on yer way; soon!"

Osmond dared to interrupt. "And the women, my Lord? My daughter is on her way to her wedding to the royal house of Wessex!"

"Yer daughter will be escorted to my home village where she will live a life of idle luxury until you pay her ransom. I am especially happy that you tell me she is to join the royal house of Wessex. That means she is worth more than I would have otherwise have asked for her.'

Osmond groaned but otherwise said nothing. The Welshman continued. 'Fear not, good father! I will have a priest of God bring you her ransom price and delivery instructions to Lundenwic before the next moon wanes. Until then, you have Lord Cunedda's word as a Christian that she will be well treated. Unlike your kind, we keep our word.

And now, good Angles. As soon as you have finished removing your garments, you are free to go on your way. I would encourage you, however, to go east. There is a village there not more than an hour's walk. I would hurry. The weather could change. I fear I smell snow in the air!"

"And our wagons?"

Lord Cunedda shrugged. "Take them if you wish.' He grinned suddenly. 'Of course, we will keep the horses - unless you have sufficient gold to buy them from us."

With great hilarity, the Welsh raiders helped the most reluctant Angles out of their clothes. The Angle men, greatly humiliated, ran quickly eastward, followed by their naked and overweight Ealdorman. Gretchen, anxious about the fate of her little group of servant women, and embarrassed for her father's sake, yet almost laughed out loud when she saw his buttocks quivering indignantly as he lumbered eastward.

***

That night, the band of Welsh raiders camped within the ruins of an ancient Roman villa. The roof had collapsed in several places, but the walls were still solid.

Within the security of the four walls, Lord Cunedda allowed his men to make a large fire. Some of the mead that had been found in one of the Angle wagons was brought out and passed around freely. The Welsh had little love for Angles or Saxons, so the Anglish mead tasted twice as sweet.

Their raiding expedition had, until now, been relatively unsuccessful. Where the Vikings had struck, there was little left to steal, and where they hadn't, the Welsh found that either the people had fled, or, the alert fyrdmen had set lookouts and were prepared to battle any enemy.

The raiders had been reduced to robbing individual travellers along the ancient Roman road. Now, in one haul, they had made up for all their bad luck.

Cunedda spoke now to the assembled men in the Celtic tongue. Gretchen's maid servant, Enid, had been born to a Welsh mother who had been captured in a border raid as a youngster. She had thus learned the Celtic tongue at her mother's teat. Enid translated for her mistress.

"My friends and loyal followers! Tonight we must make a decision. I wish to head back to Caernarvon on the morrow. I know that we have not yet found all the treasures that we had hoped for, and so I will not insist you all return with me. I ask only for thirty men as escort, and as many horses. I will take the women and treasure with me. I ask you to tell your immediate commanders what you wish to do; return, or stay to raid some more."

It took some considerable packing, but Cunedda's personal escort, plus the captive women, were mounted and ready to head west before the sun reached its zenith. The other seventy men, for the most part on foot, staggered eastward again, gradually walking off the effects of the mead from the night before. The unseasonably warm weather still held, and they hoped for some more loot before the bleak winter forced them to return to their own homes hard by the Irish Sea.


 

CHAPTER 2

Cunedda's Party Is Captured by Norsemen.

The column of riders paused in front of the vast earthworks. Cunedda rode over and stood his horse beside Gretchen and her maidservants. He gestured towards the manmade dyke that stretched out of sight to the north and south.

"There it is, Angle-woman! Your God-cursed King Offa had that built with the sweat of his churls and not a few Welsh slaves. He then ordered that no Welshman was ever to cross over it, upon pain of death! Well, we cross it when we damn-well please! On the other side you will be in the last free Celtic territory in the southern lands! Come, woman."

With that, Cunedda swept his arm forward and cried out in his deep and commanding voice.

"Forward, Welshmen! Ho!"

The raiders, one by one, led their mounts up a pathway over the earth wall where it was least steep, and then descended out of sight on the other side.

Penelope stared at the immense dyke, and spoke quietly to her mistress. "By all that is holy, Mistress, did your people really build this?"

Gretchen spoke. "I know it looks like a mystical construction by the legendary Romans, but my father told me one time that, in his father's time a great western wall was built to protect Mercia from the Celtic savages."

Gretchen hesitated for as long as she could, but Cunedda himself urged her and her women on, and she was finally forced to cross the boundary into Welsh territory. For Gretchen, the dyke was a symbol, and crossing it frightened her. She had finally left the territory of her people and entered into an ancient land where the Angles and the Saxons were not rulers and were definitely not welcome.

When Cunedda reached the top of the massive dyke, he paused and withdrew a small leather pouch from his belt. Chanting quietly, he sprinkled powder from the bag both to the north and the south. He felt the eyes of Gretchen on him and he smiled at her.

"Do not fear, little bride! I merely make strong magic to prevent your kind from ever crossing the dyke again. Some of our old women still remember Druid spells."

"I don't fear, Lord Cunedda. My man will not be stopped by a little powder."

"Ah, but it's not the powder; it's the magic, and it is more powerful than an Angle or Saxon can possibly know."

"We will see, my lord! The Saxons have managed to cross into your lands before, and for a time even forced your forefathers to accept their overlordship. Be sure they will again!"

"Once, yes, at the point of a sword, but not today. Now, let's catch up to the others!"

That night, they arrived at a small hilltop village. The village was neither large nor prosperous, yet the people were friendly and they welcomed the returning raiding party with open arms. The little village was surrounded with a palisade, and, for the first time, Lord Cunedda did not feel it necessary to post shifts of sentries throughout the night.

The villagers butchered two hogs in their honour and shared freely of what little they had with the visitors. In return, Lord Cunedda left a donation to the widows of the village and ordered the last kegs of good Anglish mead to be broached.

Secure behind Offa's Dyke and amongst his own people, Cunedda at last seemed to feel safe again. When Gretchen asked the question, she was told that his own personal territory lay less than a two day ride to the west.

The Welsh raiders and villagers sat around a blazing fire and told endless stories of treachery and epic personal bravery. Men stared openly at the little party of captive women, but no one touched. Finally, as the fire became embers, the captives were allowed to retire.

Gretchen led her two companions to the hut that had been assigned them for the night. She was grateful for getting the women away, for the men were drinking hard and she was afraid the stares would turn into something more once the Welshmen got thoroughly drunk.

Gretchen settled the women down and then lay herself near the doorway, grasping the seax that Cunedda had laughingly agreed to let her keep.

The column formed up late the next day. The men clearly felt the effects of the mead imbibed the night before, and they were terribly short-tempered. They descended from the hill-top village and then followed the faint trail westwards. This was no longer a great Roman road, built to last for the centuries, but merely a beaten path occasionally intersecting with the last western remnants of the vast Anglish forests. The trail, however, to Cunedda's trained scouts, was as plain as the Roman road had been to Gretchen.

The Welshmen seemed tired from their late feasting, and Cunedda did not press his warriors. The winter's first snow still held off, but a fog was creeping in, making even the far end of the column look strangely insubstantial. They were now deep into Welsh territory and, by the next day, Gretchen understood that they would enter Cunedda's personal domains.

As it grew late, Gretchen urged her horse close to Cunedda's mount. She spoke. "It grows dark, Lord Cunedda. When do we reach your settlement?"

"As to that, little bride – we will have to ride most of tomorrow."

"And tonight, Lord? My women are cold and tired. Are we to ride through the night?"

"Little bride, there are no villages within several hour's ride, so we are heading for an ancient Roman camp still occasionally used by travellers. The dry moat is largely filled in and the wooden spikes that helped defend the ramparts have either rotted away or been chopped up for firewood long since, but it is relatively defensible; an open area in a sea of scrub trees."

"Lord, you worry about defences when you near your own land, but last night you posted no sentries at all, and even allowed your warriors to get drunk."

Cunedda smiled. "You are astute, little bride, but if you think we were not guarded, you are very wrong. That close to Offa's Dyke, there is always a screen of watchers."

"I saw no watchers, Lord."

 "Just because you did not see them, does not mean they were not there, little bride. And if you look ahead, you will see the walls, such as they are, of our destination for the night. One more ride tomorrow, and you and your women will be able to rest and recover."

Once inside the old camp, the entire column dismounted with relief. They began to throw up crude shelters, or repair ones left by earlier travellers. The men Cunedda had designated as cooks soon had several large fires going. In spite of Cunedda's words, however, none of the Welshmen were sent to climb the ramparts to watch the forest beyond.

Gretchen was smelling the delicious odour of roasting pork and was talking quietly with Enid, when apparitions materialized on the ramparts. Enid screamed in superstitious fear. In moments all the Welshmen had turned and looked outward.

One by one, and then in groups, wraiths appeared all along the ramparts. Their eerie silence was more frightening than if they had screamed terrible battle-cries. The Christian Welshmen made the sign of the cross, clutched their spears and backed towards the centre of the old fortification. On all sides, the thin line of the Viking shield-wall silently formed.

Gretchen, too, had felt a moment of superstitious fear when the enemy warriors had appeared through the enveloping fog. She quickly realized, however, that they were facing a human foe, though a dreaded one. She recognized the clothes and armaments of the Norse. They were surrounded by Viking pirates!

Cunedda spoke to Gretchen. "Lady, get your women inside the circle, and quickly!"

"In the name of God, sir, give me and my maids some weapons! These are not Christians. I know who these heathens are, and I would rather die fighting then fall into their hands."

   "Then go take a sword from one of the packs, little bride. God knows, there may not be much else I can do to protect your virtue."

The encircling shield-wall tightened, and Cunedda was for the first time able to get some clue to the enemy numbers. "I have counted them, lady, and we are only outnumbered by a little more than two or perhaps three to one."

"That is of little comfort, Lord Cunedda."

The man spoke over his shoulder. "It should, my lady. While we have little chance of outright victory, yet they did not catch us unarmed or asleep. We are in a tight defensive formation, and as long as we can hold it, it will not be easy for these devil-worshippers to break us. Our deaths will at least cost the bastards dearly."

The enemy commander clearly came to a similar conclusion, for the encircling force stopped and an emissary carrying a white-covered shield stepped forward.

Cunedda whispered to Gretchen. "You see, my Lady, it is as I said. Sending an emissary is a sign of weakness. They would not hesitate to attack if they knew they could achieve a cheap victory."

 He stepped forward to meet the emissary. "You are deep in Welsh territory, Norseman! Do you wish to surrender to us?"

The Viking officer he faced seemed to have no sense of humour. He spoke only passable Celtic, and that gruffly.

"It is clear, Welshmen, that my Jarl has but to command, and you are all dead!"

"But, Norseman. You would not be here if there was not a but!"

"But we are far from our ships, and we need horses and provisions. My Jarl has therefore told me to offer a proposition to you."

"I am listening, Viking."

"It is simple, Welshman! We allow you to keep your lives and your weapons. In return you leave horses, provisions and any loot, including the captive Anglish women I see with you."

"How do you know these women are Anglish, Viking?"

"Do not toy with me, Welshman! I know Anglish dress when I see it. Choice is yours, Welshman. Do you fight and die, or run?"

Lord Cunedda chewed on the problem for a few moments. His pride made him loathe to give up the horses and the loot.

The provisions were another matter, easily replaceable in any of his villages a few hours to the west. At least he was being offered better terms than he had given the fat Angle!

"Tell your Jarl that we will leave the horses and the food supplies, but we must be able to take what we can carry. And I expect him to pull his men well back and not block our way. Is all this agreed?"

"I think he will agree – if you leave the women."

"But we take what we can carry?"

The Viking nodded assent.

Lord Cunedda looked at the little group of huddled women for a moment, while Gretchen clutched an old sword in her hand. At last he sighed.

 "And we leave the women."



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